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Defining the Nature of Myth
Why do cultures create myths? This is a preliminary step in questioning why cultures create myths and what they hope to answer in doing so.
Myths reflect the society that produces them and in turn myths determine the nature of that society (Powell 1). Based on my understanding of mythology from this week’s reading it is my belief that cultures create myths as a way to understand society. Myths are traditional stories used to pass a set of perspectives, values, and history from one generation to another. Sometimes during the time of the telling, the myth was not seen as a myth, but as a piece of history. For instance the myths about the character Zeus from Greek mythology was at the time regarded as truth and the Greek people worshiped Zeus and the other Olympians as Gods (“Zeus”). However the stories about the Greek Gods have since them been labeled as myths.
In old Greece people used the Gods as a way to make sense of society; it allowed them to believe their society was the way it was because the Gods willed it so. These myths offered the average person guidelines for living, justification for actions, and role models. People were able to use the different myths as way to make sense of natural phenomenon like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earth quakes. To them these natural occurrences were a sign of displeasure from one or more of the Olympians or a punishment for a crime. These myths allowed people to believe that there was a reason for deaths and injuries caused by nature instead of just random occurrences. People also viewed many of the demi-gods as hero’s and role models that they could aspire to be like.
"Zeus." Zeus. GreekMythology.com, 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2015. < http://www.greekmythology.com/Olympians/Zeus/zeus.html>.
Powell, Barry B. World Myth. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
Myths, as narratives, permeate culture today just as they have for thousands of years. It is human nature to explain science, spirituality, nature, and the human condition with narratives of power and magic. As historians, students can analyze myths of a culture to determine events—wars, floods, and so on. As psychologists, students can look at myths across cultures and see into the human psyche. As sociologists, students can establish a culture’s religious priorities by looking at the myths perpetuated by that culture. As a student of literature, you will touch on all of these stances, but most importantly, you will look at how the themes and motifs that are repeated provide a common thread regarding the human condition.
Theories and Terms
To begin this course, we need to have a common set of terms that we will use to discuss myths—specifically the theories by which you might examine mythology in order to draw conclusions about what myths reveal about a culture’s values. The Powell text used for this course, World Myth, provides a good overview of some of those theories—specifically anthropological, linguistic, psychological, and structural (pp. 561–569).
In 1948, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski popularized the anthropological theory of studying myth by asserting that myths justify a culture’s view of how things are. In his publication Magic, Science, and Religion (1948), he asserts that myth should be explained by how it helps a culture deal with its day-to-day function. This theory would later be called “functionalism” and is also credited to Malinowski.The linguistic theory of myths holds that the language through which a myth is passed down holds allegorical value—both in events as well as characters. This theory was popularized at the turn of the nineteenth century when advances in science were at an all-time high as well. Names associated with this theory are Max Muller (1823–1900) and Georges Dumezil (1898–1986). The foundation of the linguistic theory has been credited with the onset of comparative mythology.
Formidable names in psychology like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung gave rise to the psychological theories of approaching myths. The main difference of looking at myths through this lens is that the focus is on the individual rather than on society and culture at large. Joseph Campbell, whom students will study when they look at the themes of heroes as well as the Journey, based his study of myths on the psychological approach. Perhaps the most common psychological term associated with this theory is that of the “collective unconscious” as a way of explaining similarities amongst themes.
A relatively new theory by which to compare mythologies is both historical and comparative. Michael Witzel introduces a unique perspective on comparative mythology in his book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (2012). Witzel argues that throughout most of the twentieth century, scholars have depended on the theories of diffusion (a large culture starting the theme in a myth and spreading it to smaller cultures) or common human characteristics/psyche (Jungian/Freudian psychological archetypes) to explain major similarities between themes and motifs throughout history. Indeed, as you study the myths of various cultures, you will see how some of the aforementioned theories are applied neatly to some myths yet do not apply at all to others. This presents scholars with challenges when attempting to apply just one theory to all myths. Witzel’s perspective is that neither is entirely correct and that the themes and motifs themselves may represent some sort of common human experience. In this course, students will strive to look at those commonalities as insight into the human condition—just as Witzel does.
Powell, Barry. World Myth. Madison: Pearson Education, 2014. Print.
Witzel, Michael. The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.